With this entry, the aspiring series that started with yesterday’s post becomes an actual series, in which I comment on what I was sad to miss in the (quite decent overall) BBC TV series “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”, compared to the wonderful original book.
This post today, apart from a fangirl rant, is also a commentary on what may be a fundamental difference between what’s captivating on screen vs. on paper and, I would posit, in life.
If you haven’t read the book, here is your minor spoiler alert. Minor, because in both the book and the series, the Greysteels are tertiary characters. They are essential to the main story line, but I will not need to reveal much of that essence. If you haven’t watched the TV series, the Greysteels were trivialized so much, there’s nothing left to warn you about.
In the TV series, Dr. Greysteel comes to Venice to rescue his daughter Flora after she ran away with Lord Byron. While she had now come to senses re: Lord Byron, she is not entirely cured from her attraction to lunatics and now seems to have fallen for our protagonist, Jonathan Strange. Jonathan is oblivious to her romantic advances, but welcomes her friendship and interest in magic. Dr. Greysteel, being a kind and liberally minded father, is supportive of Flora’s interests and civil with Jonathan, never without suspicion though, never getting close. The suspicions prove true to him when Jonathan goes mad and is cursed and abandoned by the entire world. There goes civility.
This sure makes for a more compact back story than (in the book) the Greysteels simply traveling, becoming all friendly with Jonathan, whose friendship with Flora begins to slowly develop into mutual attraction. Yet when it turns out they can only be friends, Flora’s friendship remains strong, by her choice, even if the actions it calls for are against her longing.
When Jonathan goes mad and is cursed and abandoned by most of the world, Dr. Greysteel remains loyal to him, despite not quite understanding what that is all about, despite being unable to help much. See his clearheadedness and indignation upon encountering Drawlight, in Venice on a mission to spy on Jonathan and spread malicious gossip.
Later, Drawlight tries to corrupt the Greysteels’ footman; the footman pushes him into a canal. Even in the darkest moments of one’s journey, one can count on solid loyal friends who would stand by, whether or not they can conquer the darkness.
Oh, Lord Byron does appear in the book, in his own little subplot, incidentally, also remaining Jonathan’s friend throughout the darkness. Here is a study in motives and self interest for you: the darkness is appealing to Lord Byron, perhaps more so than Jonathan himself. Anyway, the Greysteels hardly meet Lord Byron, and Flora certainly had never run away with him.
Meanwhile, attractive on screen: hostility and flightiness. Replacing loyalty and integrity.
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